Japanese Public Postpones Abe’s Pricey Party

Japanese Public Postpones Abe’s Pricey Party

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Abe Shinzo
Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's pricey cherry blossom party is on hold over questions of who's invited - and why Japanese taxpayers are footing the bill.

Whatever I think of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s politics, I can’t deny that the man is a talented politician. I’ve written before about how Abe managed to survive two separate corruption scandals that threatened to take down his government. Abe’s survival is a testament to his strength within his own party and his adroitness in pitching his ideas to the public. To his credit, Abe hasn’t bragged, Trump-style, that he could shoot someone on the street and not lose votes. Still, it’s seemed like he could get away with just about anything.

But it seems that even Abe’s power has its limits. That became clear this week when Abe’s government was forced to postpone a party that’s been a staple of Japanese politics for decades. Abe has faced numerous questions about the party’s guest list. Even worse, he couldn’t explain to Japanese taxpayers why they should pick up the increasingly expensive tab.

An Honored Tradition Gets Pricey

The party is the Sakura Viewing Party (桜を見る会; sakura o miru kai), and it takes place every April in Shinjuku Gyoen Park. The tradition didn’t originate with Abe. It dates back to 1952, when then-PM Yoshida Shigeru (吉田茂) decided to revise an older tradition, the kanoukai (観桜会), which dated back to the early Meiji era in 1882. The event’s intention was to honor the “meritorious service” of people from various fields and industries in Japan. Since its inception, it’s been a large event: the guest list typically numbers over 10,000 people.

The Sakura Viewing Party is an official government event. As such, it’s funded with taxpayer dollars. And that’s where the problems started.

Beginning over a month ago, users on social media started raising objections to next year’s planned event. The first problem was the price tag. The event has typically cost Japanese taxpayers around 17 million yen (ca. USD $160,000). However, the Abe government has requested three times as much for next year’s event, or around 57 million yen. Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide said the rise in cost was necessary to “guarantee security” at the event.

(JP) Link: A Tripled Budget Request for Abe-Led Sakura Viewing Party; “We’ll Scrutinize the Invitees”

Has Abe “Misappropriated” The Sakura Viewing Party?

The cost wasn’t the public’s only concern, however. The guest list for the event has ballooned to over 18,000 people. But it’s not clear who, exactly, the administrated has invited. Some reports say that as many as 850 of the guests are officials and cronies from Abe’s hometown.

So who, exactly, is attending? The Abe government won’t say. It maintains that it won’t publish a guest list out of “privacy concerns.” What’s more, when pressed for the guest list from last year’s shindig, government officials say they destroyed them a month after the event. In other words, there’s zero public transparency around who’s invited – even though the public is footing the (increasingly expensive) bill.

(JP) Link: Concerns Over Misappropriation of Sakura Viewing Party; A Strange Spike in Budget

The lack of transparency has led the political opposition to accuse Abe of “misappropriating” the event for personal political gain. Opponents say Abe is using the event, not to recognize meritorious efforts by Japanese citizens, but to reward political allies.

Abe Couldn’t Afford Another Black Eye

The Abe administration attempted to quell the uproar around the party by promising it would “scrutinize” the guest list. It promised it would indeed invite people based on “meritorious service.” Cabinet Secretary Suga also attempted to assure reporters that Abe had no hand in creating the guest list. However, it didn’t offer any additional transparency controls, nor account for how they’d spend the money allocated for the event.

The pressure was so great that Suga announced this week the event would be “postponed.”

(JP) Link: (Chronology) A Quick Change to Avoid Criticism of PM; Sakura Party Postponed: “It’s The Only Way”

Asahi documented the about-face in a lengthy write-up. A key factor was the political opposition, which formed an action committee to investigate the “misappropriation” of the sakura party. Kuroiwa Takahiro, from the Constitutional Democratic Party (立憲民主党; rikken minshutou), even said that the event could violate Japan’s campaign finance laws.

Another factor is that Abe has recently been beset by a fresh round of controversies, and he can ill afford another political wound. In recent months, two ministers have resigned back to back over accusations of bribery and misconduct. In addition, the administration recently postponed the launch of the new privatized English college entrance examination over criticism that its pricing structure favored well-off families.

Fresh off of the announcement of the new era in Japan, Abe is currently enjoying positive polling numbers. His approval ratings as of last month sit around 44%, and his disapproval is only around 33%. However, the administration is clearly concerned that the recent spate of resignations and missteps is taking its toll on Abe’s support.

Postponed…Or Canceled?

The Abe administration insists that the Sakura Viewing Party will make a comeback. However, the political opposition is now insisting that the event should be canceled outright. That sentiment was captured recently in a tweet from Lower House member Izumi Kenta:


The Abe administration should do away with the Sakura Viewing Party. It’s out of the question for the PM to invite supporters on a large scale. But the structure of the event’s rumored to be politicized and even now remains unclear. This sort of invitation structure is out of step with the times. It ought to be either shrunk down or abolished.

Tamaki Yuuichirou (玉木雄一郎) of the People’s Democratic Party made a similar call to abolish the event. However, Suga insists that the administration isn’t considering such a drastic step.

I doubt that Abe will ultimately scrap the party. However, if it does survive, it will likely need to offer the Japanese public a lot more transparency into who’s invited, and why. Abe holds a lot of power in the current government. He can often strong-arm the Diet into passing even his most contentious legislation. However, his position ultimately rests on the good graces of the Japanese public. And the public’s made it clear that it looks poorly upon the current structure of the Sakura viewing party.

Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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